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Blow to Berlusconi as new minister quits

July 5, 2010

By Guy Dinmore in Rome
Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right government, stumbling from one crisis of its own making to another, was dealt a fresh blow yesterday when a newly appointed minister abruptly announced his resignation while on trial for embezzlement.

Aldo Brancher became Italy’s second minister to quit in as many months when he told a Milan court that he was resigning immediately to defend his “innocence” in a case related to the 2005 takeover battle of bank Antonveneta.

Mr Berlusconi’s appointment three weeks ago of Mr Brancher, a former manager in the prime minister’s Fininvest media group, had run into problems from the outset. In the context of the government’s attempt to slash spending, commentators questioned why Mr Berlusconi wanted to expand his administration.

The answer came within days of his nomination as minister for federalism when Mr Brancher availed himself of a new law to avoid attending a trial hearing, saying he had to devote time to constructing his new ministry. Giorgio Napolitano, head of state, then made a rare public intervention noting that Mr Brancher was minister without portfolio and therefore had no ministry to set up.

In the meantime Mr Berlusconi has been unable to find a new minister for industry following the resignation two months ago of Claudio Scajola who is under investigation for corruption, along with several other senior officials.

The sense of a government in disarray was compounded yesterday when Il Giornale, a newspaper owned by the Berlusconi family, ran a front-page picture apparently taken decades ago of Gianfranco Fini, co-founder of the ruling People of Liberty party, giving a straight-armed fascist salute.

“Fini – leader of the conspiracy,” ran the headline of an editorial accusing him of plotting to oust the 73-year-old prime minister.

Behind-the-scenes feuding between Mr Fini, speaker of parliament, and Mr Berlusconi erupted in a public televised shouting match at a party conference in April.

Since then Mr Berlusconi has seen his economic policies under fire from Mario Draghi, governor of the central bank, and Emma Marcegaglia, head of the Confindustria business lobby.

His efforts to pass a law severely restricting the use of police wire-tapping and media publication of intercepts has stalled in parliament, and the government’s planned 25bn euro austerity package has been attacked from all sides, leading to tensions between Mr Berlusconi and Giulio Tremonti, finance minister and author of the cuts.

All this has fuelled speculation among Italy’s business community that Mr Berlusconi’s 16 years in politics could be drawing to a close, with Mr Tremonti and Mr Fini leading the pack of possible successors.

For this reason Ms Marcegaglia is not alone among prominent business people who have turned down requests by Mr Berlusconi to take up the vacant industries portfolio. “This is not the moment to take up a poisoned chalice,” one senior executive told the FT.

However, despite opinion polls showing a slide in his popularity, Mr Berlusconi could still emerge the victor in the event of snap elections, in part because of the persistent weakness of the opposition Democratic party.

Il Giornale’s commentary, penned by its editor, Vittorio Feltri, alleged that Mr Fini’s conspiracy involved avoiding elections by fixing a deal to install a caretaker government.

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